This is not a political blog. I have no desire to rant and rattle on about my political views and why you should or should not vote for this one, that one, or the third one who really shouldn't even be running because he's just mucking up the chances of the second one. There are plenty of blogs exactly like that, though, so if that's the horse you want to ride, well, do a search and saddle up, cowboy.

This is not a blog about the short-comings of the American education system or the stupidity of the next ( or any) generation. If you think the school system failed you and you can still read this, then congratulations,Kilroy! You managed to rise above it. Kudos to you.

This is absolutely not an anti-American blog. I may have named it "Stupid America", but as corny as it sounds, I really do love this country. I will, however, admit I am often embarrassed by it. I just don't understand how a country that once gave us Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Sojourner Truth and Walt Whitman could now be serving up Real Housewives, teen vampires, info-mercials, Humvee limousines and all things Kardashian. Where, exactly, did we go off-script? This blog is my journal of musings on American culture and mores as I try to find some answers.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Torch

     In 1996 I was working for the New York State Museum's Cultural Resource Management  Anthropological Survey division. This is a fancy way of saying, I was on the archaeology crew and we dug a lot of holes in a lot of towns all over New York State that year, and for many years to come. We hoisted our Razorback brand shovels and holstered our Marshalltown trowels and wore our boots proudly ( and necessarily, according to OSHA) as we made our way across pretty much every dinky little town in the Empire State, from Athens ( Greene County) to Paris ( Oneida County) to Warsaw ( Wyoming County), like some badly thought out, cut-rate international tour. I could tell you where to get the best turkey dinner plate in Watertown, and the best IPA in Alexandria Bay. I could direct you to the diner in Keene where they  made their own strawberry preserves, and the Korean restaurant in Syracuse with the fantastically good bibimbap. There was merlot ice cream in Corning and farm fresh produce in Manlius. A barn sale full of old farm tools  in Sharon Springs and a second hand shop with the best vintage salt and pepper shakers ever, on the  outskirts of Herkimer. I could give you the lowdown on the many, many hotels and motels and extended stay lodges that served as my home away from home for days or weeks or months at a time; which had the most comfortable beds, the nicest showers, the best coffee ( sadly, none had the best coffee, by the way).  And I could tell you about dozens of clean, accessible bathrooms in as many gas stations, diners and convenience stores, should you need to use the facilities in any given New York county if your current project necessitates  you  work in public, with no available sheltered woodlands in which to, shall we say, "go".  There are things you learn, as an archaeologist out in the field, that stay with you, even when the field is actually a semi-urban streetscape. So, not only can I look at a clearing in the woods or a patch of grassy field and ascertain, by the lay of the land, and the types of plants that grew in various spots, where the 18th Century  foundation might be, or where the Iroquois midden might lurk,  I can also look at any Main Street, USA and find the basics: food, shelter, rest room, dive bar.
     That year, we had a great crew, not only in the field, but out of it. Instead of retiring to the privacy of our various hotel rooms when the working day was done, we tended to socialize. A lot.  We would go to movies, microbreweries, malls. We often went out for dinner as a group, and we absolutely went to many happy hours within walking distance of our hotels. We would explore every town and city we found ourselves in, searching out quaint shops, pool tables in dives with great jukeboxes, nature preserves with lovely lakeside hiking trails. We would look for local must-try food stops, like the Dinosaur BBQ in Syracuse ( before it expanded to its several locations) and Voss hotdog and ice cream stand in Utica. And if we were lucky enough to find a specal event, be it street fair or Shakespeare in the teeny, tiny park, we went, and were almost always glad we did.
     In the summer of 1996, we were working, among other places, on an extended phase II dig ( trenches and squares instead of merely spaced test pits and test squares)  at a site called the Hobby House, in Utica. We were working on this particular site for a very long time ( and came back to it the next year as well) and we were living at the Utica ( "Gateway to the Adirondacks!") Best Western. During this time, we explored pretty much all Utica had to offer, and were eager to find anything new to do, to pass the time after work.  1996 was an Olympic year, with the Summer Games to take place in Atlanta, Georgia. These would be the games at which Eric Robert Rudolph placed three pipe bombs full of nails under a bench at Centennial Olympic Park one night, killing two people and wounding over a hundred others. But on this sunny day in June, the Olympics were not even on our minds. So we wondered why the crowd of people was gathered on Genesee Street that afternoon.
     There were high school kids, little kids, business men, soccer moms and grandmothers in lawn chairs, waiting to see...what? Was there a parade? How did we not know about a parade?! Across from where my friend Suzanne and I were standing, three goth skater types slouched moodily by the opposite curb, trying to seem like they were sneering at the bourgeois-ness or the homogeneity or whatever it was about standing in the sun on drab, shuttered, "seen better days" Genesee Street in what was surely their home town that made them want to sneer.  There was surely a lot from which to pick and choose. There were two little kids who had no idea what they were doing there but were having a fine time, regardless. And there was local press. Reporters from the local television news stood waiting for the arrival of whatever was coming our way, microphones and cameras at the ready. Now we were interested. Surely this was really going to be something, either great or laughable, but defintely something.  We speculated. Could it be a tween pop star? A little league parade? Was it a mayoral speech or a high school graduation event? It could be anything. Our curiosity was piqued. We stood and waited with the rest. What in the world could it be?
      Then, in the distance, a slight commotion. A slow moving group of people, flanked by other people on bicycles, and a few police, was making its way up Genesee Street. The group was not large, but not small, either. It was hard to make out what the fuss was about, until they drew a bit closer and we finally saw. It was the Torch. The Olympic Flame, in the form of one of the many, many Torches held by many local heroes and outstanding members of their communities, was making its way across the world, to its ultimate destination in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. And here it was, coming right up the street, right to where we stood, gaping at the small flame held aloft by a man with a big, beaming smile and a look of absolute determination and pride. Torch bearer. Forever after, for the rest of his life, this man could say he carried an Olympic Torch  on its journey to the Games. All around us, people were cheering. It was impossible not to cheer. Even the cynical teens on the other side of the street were clapping and whooping, forgetting their imposed personae for the moment. We stood, cheering and clapping, as the Torch Bearer approached. Many of us didn't even care about the Olympics, but we cheered anyway. Here was tradition, and history. Here was an actual EVENT. This did not happen every day, and we had just happened upon it. Serendipity.
       As the Torch and its entourage moved closer, and then, as it was almost directly in front of us, I was seized with an idea, and turned to my friend ( and partner in crime, for sure) Suzanne with a glint in my eyes.
"Suze, RUN!!" I said, and started to laugh. She looked at me like I was telling her to randomly hit herself in the head, but then, a few seconds later, she understood what I was telling her, and her whole face lit up like a Christmas tree. "Come on, Let's RUN!" I yelled, and we both took off, running alongside the Torch Bearer, who beamed at us, and laughed. We were laughing too, as we jogged along with him for a good half mile or so, until we were laughing so hard, and getting so far from our friends, we waved our goodbyes and stood back to watch the Torch Bearer and the Olympic Flame run away from us and on to its next destination.
     After we caught our breath and walked back to our start point, our friends asked us what exactly we thought we were doing,  taking off  like two bats out of hell without a word of warning. We all had a good laugh about it over dinner, and it became part of the "legend" of the crew of 1996 ( to this day, the Museum staff still talks about that crew, and that field season), and the next day we found something else to do, and so on, and so on, for the rest of the summer. But to this day, and for the rest of my life, I can say, quite honestly, I ran with the Olympic Torch. *wink*